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Happy anniversary, Gabe Kapler!

Two years ago today, the Phillies manager pulled Aaron Nola in favor of Hoby Milner and forever lost the support of many fans

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Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies
Most fans would not give Kapler’s performance as manager a thumbs up
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

On the morning of March 29, 2018, many Phillies fans woke up with a sense of optimism. It was Opening Day, and a new era of Phillies baseball was about to begin. After a few years of struggle, the team had made a massive ideological shift towards analytics. This change was personified by their new manager Gabe Kapler, who was going to utilize analytics at a higher level than any manager had ever done before.

The optimism regarding Kapler was not universal. A sizable portion of the fan base clung to the old-school traditionalist mentality, and decried that the “nerds were ruining the game.” So when the team hired a manager who was going to use analytics as the main factor in his decision-making, those fans weren’t thrilled. It didn’t help that in additional to the analytics, Kapler seemed to be a strange person in general.

Still, Opening Day is Opening Day, and fans would still feel some level of excitement even if the team had brought back Ryne Sandberg to manage. So fans were generally feeling positive when the team took the field against the Braves, and were feeling even more positive halfway through the sixth inning. The offense had scored five runs, and Aaron Nola was cruising, limiting the Braves to three hits and zero runs.

And then came the bottom of the sixth. Ender Inciarte led off the inning with a double, but Nola got the next batter to fly out. With Freddie Freeman due up, to the surprise of just about everyone, Kapler emerged from the dugout to pull Nola in favor of left-hander Hoby Milner.

Based on Twitter reactions, most fans didn’t understand the move, and they understood it even less when Milner gave up a two-run home run to Freeman, giving the Braves new life.

Kapler spent the remainder of the afternoon, managing as if it was a playoff game. This too was generally ill-received by Phillies fans.

He used four more relievers, and each of those relievers pitched as if they were trying to make their manager look bad. The misery finally ended when Hector Neris surrendered a three-run walkoff homer to Nick Markakis in the ninth, essentially setting off two years of debate about Kapler’s abilities as a manager.

It didn’t help that Kapler was not great at suitably explaining himself. For instance, he couldn’t seem to decide if the quick hook was done to preserve Nola for a long season, (This at least made some sense.) or because statistics show that a pitcher’s effectiveness wanes a third time going through the batting order. (So he was never going to let a starter go beyond the sixth all year?) Even if you did accept those answers, it still doesn’t explain why Kapler let Nola bat for himself the previous half inning with two runners aboard.

The situation got worse over the next two games. The Phillies used nine pitchers in game two - a game in which they actually won - and then was forced to use position player Pedro Florimon to pitch in game three. In that same game, he called upon a pitcher (Milner again!) who wasn’t adequately warmed up, resulting in an embarrassing incident that prompted mockery and criticism throughout baseball.

Many fans had seen enough of the new manager and wouldn’t change their minds no matter what he did over the next two years. Others had their opinion soften when the Phillies were in first place at midseason of 2018, showing that fans will accept just about anything as long as it results in wins. (Remember the Kapler for Manager of the Year talk at the 2018 All-Star Break?) But as the team collapsed over the final two months of that season, most fans permanently established themselves as members of team “Kapler sucks.”

When the team suffered another meltdown in the second half of the 2019 season, the number of anti-Kapler fans grew even larger. Ultimately, team ownership joined their ranks, and Kapler was fired. Don’t shed tears for him though, thanks to his connections, he was able to quickly find a new job in San Francisco. (And if you think Phillies fans were quick to sour on Kapler, most of us at least waited until he made a mistake. Giants fans have crapped on his hiring from the very beginning.)

However, there were some people who tried REALLY hard to defend Kapler over the next two seasons, despite an ever-increasing amount of evidence that the man was not a good manager.

My impression was that during the analytically-barren Ruben Amaro era, some fans started to believe that analytics were the magical cure-all for what ailed the team. Others were just so thankful to finally have a manager who used statistical analysis, that they didn’t want to criticize him.

The smarter fans realized that the collapses of the past two seasons were not necessarily all Kapler’s fault, yet he was also not the right man for the job. Hiring a rookie manager is always perilous, as they have to endure growing pains, and that is probably even more true with someone as unconventional as Kapler.

The good news is, after firing Kapler, the Phillies made a very smart move in hiring Joe Girardi. And while I can’t predict what the future will bring (I can’t even predict if there will be a 2020 season!) I will guarantee this: If Aaron Nola is cruising along in the sixth-inning of Opening Day, Girardi will not call upon Hoby Milner to relieve him.

So happy anniversary, Gabe! To celebrate, here’s a video of Phillies fans booing you at the 2018 home opener: